Pass the chowder and curry: Jamaican chefs add to Cape Cod culinary masterpieces

At Café Jerk, a storefront tucked away in a mall in the village of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, sweet-smelling smoke greets guests as soon as the front door is opened. So does the café’s owner, Glenroy Burke, who hops around the wide open kitchen and flips pots, tends to the grill and coats the dishes. “I don’t like being hidden in the kitchen,” said Mr. Burke, aka “Chef Shrimpy.”

For more than three decades, Jamaican chefs and chefs have been coming to Cape Cod through the H-2B visa program, which provides foreign workers a path toward temporary non-farm jobs. A modest number of seasonal workers became permanent residents or citizens. This summer, as international travel resumes and the local job market remains strong, Jamaicans are once again hiring the kitchens of traditional Cape seafood restaurants, fine dining destinations, resorts and inns.

With ingredients and cooking techniques, Jamaicans are leaving their mark on the region’s culinary identity, opening their own restaurants and revitalizing menus from Hyannis to Provincetown. A taste of Cape Cod, a Yankee seafood favorite for a long time, now includes flaky, golden pancakes, vibrant minced meat and rich turmeric curries, topped with spices.

“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who is working as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. “Others understand us – how we talk, how we laugh, how we have conversations through food.”

The number of Jamaicans working in the United States in the H-2B program has increased 84 percent in the past 10 years, to 8,950 in 2021 from 4,874 in 2011, according to USCIS. Looking back and local, Cape Cod immigration attorney Matthew Lee at Tucci & Lee estimates – using data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce – that by the summer of 2000, 500 Jamaicans were working on Cape Cod, and that the number had risen to 1,000 before the pandemic hit. .

Mr. Burke first came to Cape in 1997 after contact with an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He grew up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, watching his mother cook, and eventually worked in the kitchens of cruise ships and in resorts. After one year as a seasonal worker, Mr. Burke obtained a green card and worked as a cook and marine technician in the Cape towns of Harwich and Chatham. The economic opportunity he found in the Cape prompted him to stay and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.

Three years after gaining US citizenship, Mr. Burke opened Jerk Cafe in 2008. The restaurant quickly became famous for its shivers. As for the sides, Chef Shrimpy’s Banana Pancakes are lovable. Used almost like a garnish, one pancake culminates per order and tastes like lightly fried sweet banana breadcrumbs.

During his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mother would occasionally make it on Sundays. “When Poor parents had no sugar, they could crush a banana and put a little flour in it so that they could make something sweet for us. “I wish she made it every day.”

Bananas form the backbone of an ancient shared history between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, after landing an opportunity in Port Antonio, a ship captain turned Wellfleet entrepreneur named Lorenzo Dow Baker offered fruit to the United States. The wealth he gained from this modern banana trade led him to set up hotels in both Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he employed Jamaican workers seasonally.

At Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet, the predominantly Jamaican kitchen staff makes jerk pork and Caribbean seafood bowl along with fried cod sandwiches and clam chowder.

“Collaboration in the kitchen leads to more diverse and inclusive foods, so I’ve always encouraged it,” said Mac Hay, chef and restaurateur behind the Cape’s 10 seafood restaurants and seafood markets.

Jamaican-inspired dishes are beginning to appear on the menu thanks to Neily Bowlin, a former Pier chef who now runs two Mac seafood markets. About 10 years ago, Mac had a smoker and the restaurant served barbecue ribs. Mr. Boleyn suggested making a jerk ham, and Mr. Hay liked the idea.

In earlier days, Mr. Bowlin and others would bring pounds of spices and seasonings in their luggage, “to make the jerk fly off the menu,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Paulin originally hails from Black River, Jamaica, an area of ​​the country where cooking seafood is a specialty – he was well suited to working with local ingredients in the Cape when he arrived for his first summer in 1996.

“At the time, it was a very small and tight-knit community,” he said. “Now, even in the winter, you see a lot of Jamaicans, and they don’t just visit here. They live here, they have families, they have homes, they have businesses.”

Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natissa Brown feeds local Jamaicans and the wider Provincetown community of acai, salt fish, curried lobster and tiger chicken at her cozy restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurateurs, has had a hard time during the pandemic.

“Even though Covid hit us hard for two years, the locals we have in Bee Town have supported their local businesses,” Brown said.

In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace founded Amplify POC Cape Cod, a non-profit racial equity organization, to support and showcase minority-owned businesses in the Cape. Erie Eats, along with BBQ & Café branches in Chatham, Caribbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, are among the Cape’s cherished Jamaican restaurants. She said, “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive, but they’ve also struggled tremendously.”

The lack of affordable housing has emerged as a serious consequence of the epidemic, which is disproportionately affecting communities of color. Before the coronavirus, the transfer of seasonal rentals and other housing stock to Airbnb removed many affordable long-term rentals from the market; Mass displacement from urban areas to the Cape during the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

While Ms Vargas Wallace is buoyed by tourists who support minority-owned businesses – those who are “intentional to their wallets,” she said – the shortage of affordable housing risks pays business owners and workers who cater to visitors.

As a result, many business owners who participate in the H-2B program acquire motels, multifamily homes, or other properties to convert into employee housing. Mr. Hai has several characteristics. Several years ago, he bought a hotel that now provides 10 rooms for his seasonal employees. “Any business that is here has some kind of survival housing,” he said.

Another issue is the annual maximum number of seasonal workers, which this year reached 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all countries. Relying on recruiters and personal relationships to find employees, Mr. Hay has hired Jamaican workers for two decades, but because of the cap and lottery-based system, “even if we have someone close or a friend, we can’t necessarily get them in,” Mr. Hay said. country”.

Mr. Crooks, a chef from Westmoreland Parish, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his career and entered the H-2B visa lottery for more opportunities.

This summer, as one of four chefs at the Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he’s preparing dishes like unflavored oxtail, slathered in a rich red broth and filled with diced potatoes and broad beans. Quality is vital.

“We try to make it as original as possible,” said Mr. Crooks. “All the chefs here learned to cook from our grandfathers.”

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